Happy Wagner can thank Mets for letting him go

Atlanta Braves pitcher Billy Wagner throws batting practice

Atlanta Braves pitcher Billy Wagner throws batting practice during spring training. (February 23, 2010) (Credit: AP )

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Billy Wagner beat them all.

The former Mets closer, who considered retirement after undergoing Tommy John surgery in September 2008, returned last year from the disabled list before Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Johan Santana and Oliver Perez.

Then Wagner was traded into the playoffs, thanks to the deadline deal that sent him to the Red Sox, and parlayed that into a one-year, $7-million contract with the Braves. No wonder the feisty Wagner was all smiles Wednesday as he greeted reporters in the home clubhouse at Champions Stadium.

The Braves wanted him so badly that Bobby Cox was part of the traveling party that dropped in to see Wagner at his Virginia farmhouse during the winter.

"When Bobby Cox comes to your house, it's a tough offer," Wagner said. "It's like 'The Godfather' coming in.''

It's a little late, but could Wagner, 38, have helped the Mets' bullpen, which has holes to fill? By trading him to the Red Sox, the Mets saved $3.2 million of his remaining salary.

What if the Mets kept Wagner, and either offered him arbitration, which he would have declined so he could become a free agent, or picked up his option to make him an elite setup man for Francisco Rodriguez? Under the first scenario, the Mets would have received two draft picks as compensation.

If they went the option route, they could have used him as an eighth-inning specialist. Given that the Mets' biggest problem arguably is their bullpen, it's not that outlandish. The only problem is that Wagner wanted to be a closer again - and principal owner Fred Wilpon was willing to oblige him by letting him go elsewhere.

"You know what, I talked to Fred before and they were going to let me go," Wagner said. "They knew I wasn't going to accept arbitration, and it had nothing to do with if I could coexist with Frankie [Rodriguez]. I could have been an eighth-inning setup guy. I had no problem with it.

"But being close to 400 saves and having the opportunity to reach that, I think they understood that it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You can't just say, 'OK, well I got close.' You have to take that shot."

Wagner has 385 saves, enough for sixth on the all-time list, and with the Braves' starting staff, he should get plenty of chances to reach a milestone he cherishes. It was a place he never thought he'd be during his tearful news conference in 2008, when Wagner announced that he was headed for Tommy John surgery.

Despite all of the Mets' recent injury woes, and the criticism of their medical staff, Wagner praised the team's head orthopedist, David Altchek, for the reconstruction of his elbow. When told that he was one of the few medical success stories from last season, Wagner shrugged.

"It was just luck of the draw," Wagner said.

Luck? The silver belt buckle Wagner received from Cox after his signing should have been shaped like a horseshoe. If Wagner finishes 50 games for the Braves this season, his $6.5-million option for 2011 becomes guaranteed. So as Wagner prepares himself to torment his former team, he looks back with no hard feelings.

"I never felt that I wasn't wanted," Wagner said. "I always felt like guys liked me and I was good in the clubhouse. I felt guys respected how I went about my business. I thoroughly enjoyed it and thoroughly enjoyed everything about New York."

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